From IWU Magazine, Spring 2016

Teaching peace

Monica Shah '10

At IWU, Shah (above) was a Peace Fellow. The fellowships were created in 2007 by John Stutzman ’54 and his wife, Erma, to encourage focused study in areas involving peace, conflict resolution and social justice. (Inset) A note to Shah from one of her students.

As an IWU student and in her career as a public school teacher, Monica Shah ’10 has thought about, and done a lot, for the cause of peace.

An international studies major, Shah was selected as an Illinois Wesleyan Peace Fellow in 2008. She says being a Peace Fellow “gave me the confidence I needed to know that I could and would engage in a path of peace-building, education and global issues. It also helped provide me with some direction in studying abroad, finding internships and in the classes I took.”

One of her most important Peace Fellow experiences, Shah says, was an experiment that failed. She organized a group of international-minded IWU students who would visit local high schools to discuss critical global issues and the benefits of studying abroad. “This project did not succeed because I went about it the wrong way. Yet I realize now that I was essentially designing a course that I wanted to one day teach, and I’ve taken that passion and interest with me into my career.”

At Illinois Wesleyan, Shah widened her interest in peace to national and global scales. “IWU is a small liberal arts school that allows students great educational opportunities around the world — it can’t get better than that,” she says. After spending semesters in Washington, D.C., and in Salamanca, Spain, she interned for a summer with the National Children’s Center at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Arlington, Va. 

Her ability to speak Spanish allowed her to interview children from Latin America who had been caught crossing the U.S. border unaccompanied and were facing deportation hearings. Using information obtained from each child, she created a legal memo that was sent to pro bono lawyers who could represent them. In speaking to the children, she was both moved and appalled by their accounts of gang violence, parental neglect or abuse and their dangerous journeys to the U.S.

The experience inspired Shah to consider a pro bono legal career, but her belief in the power in education pulled her in another direction. She thought back on meeting Colman McCarthy in Washington, D.C, where he directs the Center for Teaching Peace. Shah later invited McCarthy to speak on the IWU campus. “He said, ‘Unless we teach our children peace, someone else will teach them violence.’ I fell in love with this idea and began chasing this dream.”

Her first stop in that pursuit was American University in Washington, D.C., where she earned her master’s degree in international training and education as well as a graduate certificate in teaching secondary education.

In the fall of 2012, she began teaching history and geography to eighth graders at Washington, D.C.’s Brightwood Education Campus. Her classroom is diverse: many of her students come from Latino and Ethiopian immigrant backgrounds.

“To make lessons relevant and enriching, I make sure to always connect a unit they are studying with something that is happening today in society, whether locally or globally,” says Shah. Those lessons “shift students away from simply being consumers of information to becoming critical thinkers who question the perspectives and credibility of sources, and consider the histories of all people.”

At Brightwood, she also introduced programs such as Model UN and National History Day to her students and brought fresh energy to the school’s Student Government Association. And, two years ago, her long-held dream of teaching peace classes became a reality when Shah launched a peace education program that works with children from second to fifth grade. 

“The kids go to gym one day, then art, then music,” she says. “They come to me for peace.”

Monica firmly believes that “peace is a subject that needs to be taught, just like reading, math and science. One of the goals of my peace classes is to develop social emotional competencies and equip students with skills to create and maintain intrapersonal, interpersonal and intergroup peace both in and out of school.”

Shah knows some regard teaching peace as naïve or idealistic. But what is the alternative, she asks. “Day after day, students, especially in urban environments, are suspended from school,” she said in an interview for the United States Institute of Peace website. “Should students be punished because the society they live in is failing to teach them nonviolent ways to engage in and resolve conflict? We do not expect students to intuitively know how to do algebra, so why do we expect students to simply know how to act nonviolently?

“My students grow up amidst violence, watch movies and TV shows that portray violence as justified or even honorable and play video games that glorify violence,” she added, “so how can we expect them to act peacefully?”

To further her students’ knowledge and exposure to diverse cultural and international issues, Shah has taken them on field trips to the U.S. Institute of Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, Gandhi Memorial Center, Newseum and the United Nations. Her students have Skyped with young peace activists in Afghanistan and Sudan and with Peace Corps volunteers in Nicaragua. “All of these opportunities allow students to learn about the work of many different organizations and career paths in peace-building.”

Shaw also aspires to work with teachers to help introduce and incorporate peace education into different classes. “Anyone can be a peace educator, no matter what subject he or she teaches,” she says. “You can incorporate lessons about social justice in math, language arts, science and social studies.”

At the “Work That Matters” panel discussion, Shah gave advice to current and prospective students. “Surround yourself with people who support you. Especially as you transition from undergrad to the real world, it’s really, really important just to be around supportive people who will encourage you to think critically and at the same time will be there for you.”

Though her IWU Peace Fellowship lasted two years, she says, “I feel like there really was no term limit. You don’t just stop advocating for peace when you graduate — that’s when things really get going.”